Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Burma’s bid to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014 was politely dismissed when the bloc concluded its latest summit in Indonesia without a clear commitment on the matter. Instead of receiving support for its bid, Burma was advised by fellow ASEAN members to build better infrastructure first if it really wants to lead the group in the future.

But the unstated reason for the quiet rejection of the country’s aspiration is the apparent failure of the ruling junta to improve its poor human rights record. In the eyes of ASEAN, and the rest of the world, Burma’s new government has been unable to hasten the democratization process because of its lack of sincerity and the fact that there is no definite and lasting initiative to promote political reconciliation with dissident parties.

ASEAN also bowed to pressure from Western governments and advocacy groups, which warned about the incompatibility of the regional group’s democracy drive on the one hand, and Burma’s atrocious human rights record on the other. They correctly pointed out that ASEAN would become a laughingstock within the international community if it allows Burma to lead the group in 2014 or 2015.

Indeed, Burma’s government is guilty of spectacular crimes against its people and has committed some of the worst human rights violations in the modern era. Democracy is almost nonexistent in the country, despite the earlier pledge of the junta leadership to promote civil liberties after the holding of elections last year and the revival of the parliament last January. The media, meanwhile, is still tightly controlled, while political parties still need to undergo a strict and unreasonable registration process. In addition, critics are still handed insanely long-term jail sentences and there are about 20,000 political prisoners in Burma.

The decision to deny the country a chance to lead ASEAN is laudable, and must be sustained until we see substantial political reforms in the country. But the political will to uphold human rights must be applied in other countries in the region where gross human rights offenses are also being perpetuated by the state.

Burma isn’t the only nation in ASEAN whose government is accused of undermining the democratic rights of the people. There are equally notorious bullies in the region that must be named as enemies of freedom and human rights.

In fact, Burma’s confidence in asking for the ASEAN chairmanship could have stemmed from the knowledge that its pretentious neighbouring states also have democratic deficiencies. If Burma were asked to explain the continued detention of pro-democracy leaders, it could always retort by inquiring about the documented torture of suspects in Indonesia, the legal persecution of opposition leaders in Malaysia, the use of cluster munitions by Thailand in its border war against Cambodia, the continuing lack of media freedom in Vietnam and Cambodia, the absence of a genuine multiparty political system in Singapore and the rise of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

The truth is that ASEAN member countries and Burma critics like the United States have lost the moral ascendancy to preach respect for human rights.

It’s not wrong to regard Burma as the epitome of an evil regime in Southeast Asia, but this view shouldn’t prevent us from exposing and resisting the varying shades of authoritarianism in the region that are anathema to the building of a genuine democracy.

Written for The Diplomat

Sarawak, Singapore Poll Lessons

It was the ruling coalitions that dominated the Sarawak state elections in Malaysia last month and the Singapore general elections last week, but the opposition parties also scored some important victories as well.

The Barisan Nasional coalition secured 55 out of the 71 seats in the Sarawak state assembly, which allowed Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, who has led Sarawak since 1981, to retain his position. The coalition garnered 372,000 votes, while the opposition parties received only 300,000 votes. Meanwhile, Singapore’s People’s Action Party won 81 out of the 87 seats in the parliament and received 60 percent of the popular votes.

In other countries, these figures would have been immediately interpreted as an overwhelming vote of confidence for the winning party, but it seems it isn’t the case in Singapore and Sarawak. It isn’t enough for the dominant party to grab the majority of seats in parliament since the opposition can always claim a moral victory even if it only won a few seats. In other words, the administration’s victory in the polls doesn’t automatically translate into complete political hegemony.

This political paradox becomes less confusing if we take note that the BN has been in power since 1957, while the PAP has never lost an election since 1959. In the case of the PAP, it has been successful in preventing the opposition from clinching even a single seat in parliament.

The BN isn’t used to the Democratic Action Party winning 12 out of the 15 seats it contested in the Sarawak elections. On the other hand, the PAP, for the first time, has lost an important Group Representation Constituency to the opposition. The legendary political invincibility of the mighty BN and PAP has been shattered in the polls.

We should also add that they were ‘humbled’ several times during the campaign period. Sarawak’s Taib, who is the longest-serving minister in Malaysia, was accused of crony capitalism by his enemies. Meanwhile, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong issued an apology in behalf of the ruling party for the rising difficulties encountered by Singaporeans. Five years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a PAP leader would apologize for the shortcomings of the Singaporean government.

Despite their minor victories in the polls, the opposition parties in Singapore and Sarawak could use their limited power to expand influence inside the government and broaden their constituencies. The instant boost in their credibility could motivate them to be more aggressive in engaging the dominant parties. They seem to be more ready now to play a bigger and critical role in politics.

Another important point that political observers like us have learned from the recent elections in Singapore and Sarawak has been to be more cautious in measuring the strength of a party based merely on their performance on the internet. The low ratings of the ruling parties in social media didn’t reflect the actual votes on election day. It’s a reminder that the internet can reflect the sentiments of people in a given moment, but not necessarily their voting preference.

Written for The Diplomat

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